Science and Anti-science

Listener 4 March, 2000

Keywords: Education; History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

Last year, some of the media gave extensive coverage to claims that Lyprinol would cure cancer, even though the drug had never been tested on humans. How could some journalists, trained to be sceptical of outrageous claims and miracles, have let themselves be so mislead? Perhaps it reflects that far too many New Zealanders are fundamentally anti-science. As the post-election briefing of the Ministry of Research Science and Technology reported, we are interested in scientific discoveries and new technologies (of which our uptake seems to be among the world’s fastest). But we have no understanding of the scientific method, of how science comes to its conclusions.

Perhaps it is because we see scientific knowledge as a series of facts, justified by someone with authority. We dont seem to appreciate that the real authority is not the expert, but a complicated process of substantiation according to particular scientific rules. Of course, it is impossible to know all the testing that has gone on before. Consider the statement that hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table, something we can learn by rote and regurgitate in an exam. That was probably the way we were taught. Did we also grasp the theory of the periodic table, or the research program that justifies it?

How do we discriminate between a ‘fact’ that a spin-doctor announces with authority (like ‘Lyprinol will cure cancer’), and a real fact (like the scientist who said it might, but more testing was needed)? To do so, we need to understand how the scientist came to his conclusion, and how the spin doctor used a quite different method. But once we use authority rather than the testing process as the criteria, the “fact” quickly becomes a part of the conventional wisdom, repeated by politicians, editorials, or whomever wants to believe it.

Where do our scientific beliefs come from? Those on high incomes may believe the ‘fact’ that high taxes are a disincentive to effort, but how do they know? Introspection? They want to believe the ‘fact’, and lack the imagination to think of alternatives. (The systematic research evidence is quite equivocal, so one can always select evidence to support one’s prejudices, providing the rest is ignored.) No wonder we are so vulnerable to quack cures – in cancer and in public policy.

For yes, the anti-science applies to our economics too. It is even more difficult here, because we are more ignorant than for the natural sciences about the true state of affairs. (Economics is a really hard science.) But who wants to be told that we are not sure of the truth? We would rather believe a partial truth which suits our preconceptions, ignoring evidence to the contrary. People commonly quote ‘statistics’ which conform to their beliefs, even though a little thought would suggest there was no feasible way of collecting the figures. Anti-science is against such thought and curiosity which involves testing propositions we firmly believe.

In 1993 I gave a paper to a group of Australian economists. Out of curiosity I did a comparison of the economic performances of the two countries between 1985 and 1992 (the latest figures then available). It showed very clearly that Australia had outperformed New Zealand. I wrote this up as a column (April 23, 1994), so long-time Listener readers have been aware of the inferior performance of the New Zealand economy for almost six years. Only a small group of economists discussed the data. The rest ignored the evidence, for they did not fit the theory. (I welcomed discussion. There are some aspects of the data I still find puzzling.) I kept coming back to the comparison, updating the data in three books and learned articles.

Last year, more than five years after the discovery, it was suddenly noticed by the conventional wisdom that the New Zealand economy was performing worse than the Australian one. Learned papers were written (but they did not acknowledge earlier work). There was public discussion. The Chief Executive of the Business Roundtable claimed that the deterioration in relative performance only happened after 1993 which, given that it had been identified before then, give the status of prophet to the handful who recognized the gap. (Perhaps the Roundtable should hire them, rather than the soothsayers they depend upon.)

The poor performance is now officially conventional wisdom, with the Reserve Bank post-election briefing highlighting the consistently poor performance of the New Zealand economy relative to Australia (except, as was pointed out from the beginning, for price stability). It has taken over five years to get this far, and the conventional wisdom still has not decided why our performance is poor. (It is clear enough in the data. Look at export performance.)

Scientific ineptitude – in medicine, in economics and public policy, in many other places – seems endemic among commentators and the general public. Following announcements by experts, politicians, and spin-doctors, last year’s fashion was to proclaim the New Zealand’s future was the ‘knowledge economy’. But can we expect to have one if we are so ignorant of the scientific method?